'Remember, remember the fifth of November/Gunpowder, treason and plot/I see of no reason why gunpowder, treason/Should ever be forgot.'
But it has been over 400 years since the failed Gunpowder plot of 1605, when Guy Fawkes was arrested for high treason; caught guarding the barrels of gunpowder that had been placed by his fellow plotters in a cellar beneath the House of Lords. Since then, we have continued to celebrate the fact that Parliament was not blown up sky high and that the Puritan King James I survived.
Tonight, we'll be gathered around bonfires - historically topped off with an effigy of the Pope or the Roman Catholic Guy Fawkes - and watch fireworks displays and be saying 'Oooh' and 'Ahhh' in unison, whilst munching on hotdogs and roasted nuts. So it is rather paradoxical then, that just last week the seriously outdated ban on the monarch being married to a Roman Catholic was lifted, relating to laws including the 1689 Bill of Rights and the 1701 Act of Settlement. It is hard to believe, but even I had more of a chance of marrying an heir to the throne than a Roman Catholic before these changes.
Historically, the festivities on the 5 November bound a nation with a very diverse Protestant tradition against 'the other', as the historian Linda Colley has explained in her book Britons. People dragged around the condemned straw effigies whilst shouting xenophobic chants of 'no-popery' in the streets of London. Thankfully, this isn't what we do now. This isn't why we take part. So what does Bonfire Night mean for us in 2011?
Most would say 'not much'. It's not a religious or political event. Now it's more of a communal event leaving us with a warm and fuzzy feeling, allowing us to just soak up the atmosphere whilst wrapped up in our scarves, hats and gloves. That's if your local council hasn't cut funding for this year's fireworks display on the local green.
However, what is striking is the way that Guy Fawkes as a symbol has been refashioned and repackaged recently. It has become a political symbol again. In an iconic moment in the film V for Vendetta, the image of marching Londoners wearing the ominous Guy Fawkes mask to Parliament sticks. The non-violent crowd wearing the sinister mask make the statement of collective anonymity and a revolutionary stand against the corruption of political institutions.
What's more, the symbolism of Guy Fawkes has been adopted by the global movement of anti-capitalism protesters. Whilst on the other hand it's a branding that the right-wing blogger Guido Fawkes has adopted, saying that Guy Fawkes has the reputation 'as the only man to enter parliament with honest intentions'. No matter how twisted, it goes to show how Guy Fawkes has been adopted as the symbol of the average man, or the 99% against the elite institutions. But it'll be a while before any passing bankers or politicians will ask for 'A penny for the Guy?' from us.
So commemorating 5 November leaves us with mixed feelings whilst we hold our sparklers. We are celebrating the survival of the Houses of Parliament, the symbol of our democracy, but have pangs of guilt, knowing that Fawkes was tortured and then hung, drawn and quartered.
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